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War Veterans with Severe PTSD Find Relief Through Ayahuasca

Updated: Apr 29

Here's a figure that should be seared into the minds of every living American: 22. That's the shocking number of United States war veterans who commit suicide every single day. Let that number sink in for a minute. In one year, over 8,000 people — who have managed to make it out of a brutal and bloody warzone — are essentially left for dead every year in America.

The documentary From Shock To Awe details soldiers' devastation when returning home from war with shattered lives and insufficient support. Following the transformational journey of two combat veterans suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the film traverses the lives of war vets Mike Cooley and Matt Kahl as they leave pharmaceuticals in search of relief through the mind-expanding world of psychedelics. The pair find answers in the plant medicine ayahuasca, a brew containing the hallucinogenic substance dimethyltryptamine (DMT), used in tribal rituals in the Amazon for thousands of years. Its efficacy in helping people heal from deep emotional traumas has meant that over the past several decades, the plant concoction has migrated to locations across the world and is now used in healing ceremonies throughout parts of America. While currently illegal in the U.S., ayahuasca exists in a legal grey zone where ayahuasca churches find refuge under religious exemptions. Sessions drinking the brew are typically arduous, spanning over three to four days, and often include vomiting and vivid mental transport into sometimes nightmarish realms. It's frequently a terrifying plunge into the darkest recesses of the human mind— but it also has the uncanny ability to offer valuable information for traumatized individuals.

When we first meet vets Cooley and Kahl in From Shock to Awe, their anxiety levels are palpable. The pair are looking for solace at just about any cost. Cooley is ready to go through whatever he has to with ayahuasca, no matter how frightening. "I want to see something other than hate and death," he says. "If ayahuasca can take that out of me, then I don't care what I have to see or go through. I've already seen a lot."

Kahl relates how over four years, he was administered 90 different prescriptions that amounted, on average, to 18 meds he took daily. He opens a medicine cabinet in his bathroom that looks like a small pharmacy and later describes how he attempted to take his own life one Christmas Eve. Eight months after that, Kahl says, he opted to deploy back to the action in the Middle East, admitting how reckless and emotionally disconnected he was from life. "I wasn't there," says Kahl thinking back on the period.

From Shock to Awe is the second war-related documentary by director Luc Côté, who also made Operation Homecoming: Crash Landing, about Canadian vets dealing with PTSD. While that film left viewers with a bleak feeling about the fate of soldiers returning home from war with PTSD, says From Shock to Awe co-creator Janine Sagert, the current film was created to give more hope to the situation. "We wanted to tell a story that would bring a more hopeful message, some light, to all of the people suffering from the darkness of severe trauma and PTSD," says Sagert. "Not just for veterans but using the lives of combat veterans to illustrate the potential healing power of psychedelics."

As Cooley and Kahl plumb the depths of their traumas in From Shock to Awe, their struggles with PTSD — and its inherent feelings of isolation and self-loathing — slowly melt away. What's left is a beautiful surrender the two men experience when they each face the understanding that they are far more than the destruction and violence they participated in while deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I felt this profound love for everyone and everything," says Kahl. "I can see this divine light in everything — and I can see myself reflected in it."

The film's relevance comes at a time when more and more Americans are open to the idea of psychedelics as healing tools, with the cities of Oakland and Santa Cruz recently decriminalizing possession and use of ayahuasca, as well as other so-called "entheogens" like magic mushrooms and peyote. Some 100 other U.S. cities are currently considering resolutions to decriminalize such psychedelics.


Carpenter, D. (February 2020). War Vets With Severe PTSD Find Solace Through Ayahuasca In Documentary ‘From Shock To Awe’.

Image provided by Midjourney (April 2023). Retrieved from

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